COLUMBIA — Jayla Hunt, a 5-year-old who attends Alma Tapp's day care center, ran across the wood chips of the Douglass Park playground on a recent morning.
Jayla and three of the eight children in Tapp's care were playing before the Lunch in the Park program began serving meals. Children from Tapp's Schoolhouse Home Learning Center attend Lunch in the Park about twice a week, depending on her daily schedule of activities.
When volunteers began serving lunches, Jayla and the other children made a beeline for the coolers. Jayla sat down and emptied her bag, beginning her lunch with the applesauce. The meal also included a sandwich, carrots with ranch dressing, a granola bar and a half-pint of chocolate milk.
"I like the fruit because it's juicy and clean," Jayla said about her favorite parts of the daily lunches, which often feature apples, grapes or oranges.
The Lunch in the Park program celebrated its 13th anniversary June 10. Participation, however, has dropped over the past few years. From 2007 to 2011, the number of meals the program provided went from about 3,700 to 6,300 per year, but in 2012 the meal count fell to 3,032.
Ron Schmidt, project director for the Voluntary Action Center, said participation at Lunch in the Park has fallen primarily because of increased attendance at summer school programs. Total summer school enrollment for Columbia Public Schools was 6,631 in 2008. By 2012, that number had jumped to 7,572.
The relocation of the Fun City program from Douglass High School to Ridgeway Elementary School also contributed to the smaller numbers of meals served at Lunch in the Park. Fun City also started a new meal program through Columbia Public Schools.
During the regular school year, all Columbia Public Schools offer free and reduced-price lunches for students who qualify. In the summer, nine of the 23 schools that are open provide free meals because more than 50 percent of their students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, said Laina Fullum, the school district's director of nutrition services. The other 14 schools follow the same lunch routine used during the school year.
Missouri and the rest of the nation are seeing declines in the numbers of summer meals served to children.
According to the 2013 Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation report, released by the Food Research and Action Center on June 10, only eight of every 100 children in Missouri who are eligible for and receive free or discount lunches during the regular school year participated in the summer nutrition programs. This ranks the state 44th in the nation.
Overall, the report found a 34.3 percent drop in the number of Missouri children served by summer nutrition programs when it compared July 2011 to July 2012.
The summer nutrition programs are a combined effort of the federal Summer Food Service and National School Lunch programs, which are designed to provide meals to low-income children when school year programs end. Budget cuts that began with the 2008 recession, however, have reduced support for the programs. Participation has continued to fall since.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for funding free and reduced-price school lunch programs, also provides funding for Lunch in the Park. The city is reimbursed $3.41: $3 for the price of each meal served and 41 cents to cover operating costs.
Other summer meal programs
In the end, it's difficult to discern whether fewer children are being served by summer meal programs in Columbia. When summer school programs end, attendance at other nutrition programs not affiliated with Columbia Public Schools increases.
"It's hard to find a pattern," Fullum said.
Columbia features five summer food sites in addition to Lunch in the Park.
The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri runs a summer lunch program known as Program Feed in the Bear Creek public housing neighborhood. It served meals to 696 children in 2011 and to 666 in 2012, said Stacey Brown, children's program coordinator for the food bank. It also will begin a program at Indian Hills Park on July 1.
The Boys and Girls Club, The United Community Cathedral and the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church also provide summer food programs, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
Schools, local government agencies, and private nonprofit programs that provide meals in low-income communities or to sites catering to low-income children also can be reimbursed by the federal government by applying to operate summer nutrition programs, Crystal FitzSimons, director of programs with the Food Research and Action Center, said.
A Missouri mandate requires that school districts where 50 percent or more of the student body is eligible for free and reduced-price meals participate in Summer Food Service Programs.
The mandate also applies to service institutions where more than 40 children congregate. Service institutions include public or private nonprofit school food authorities, local government agencies, colleges and universities participating in the National Youth Sports Program and some summer camp programs.
As of October 2012, 38 percent of students enrolled in Columbia Public Schools were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. The state mandate does not require Columbia to provide free and reduced-price lunches, but FitzSimons said the community recognizes the need for such a program.
Still making a difference
Even though the meal count is down at Lunch in the Park, it still takes hard work to provide the free meals. Cooks at Smithton Middle School prepare the lunches, which are available to youngsters ages 2 to 18.
Tapp has brought children from the day care center she runs out of her home for more than five years. Because Lunch in the Park is conveniently located closer to lower-income families, she is able to provide healthy meals to the children she oversees.
"I can say to the parents they're getting a nutritious meal," Tapp said.
Mary Martin, community health manager at the Columbia-Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, chose Douglass Park because it could be registered as an open site, which means Lunch in the Park caters to children in the surrounding low-income community. The park also is close to schools.
Makayla Rayford, a 17-year-old caregiver at Tapp's day care, praised the program.
"It's awesome because not a lot of kids get to eat at home," Rayford said. "They don't have to answer questions about income to get a meal."
Stephanie Hullinger brought her three children to Lunch in the Park last week.
"It's an opportunity to get out in the community and be involved and take advantage of the resources the city is already providing," Hullinger said.
Volunteers from the Voluntary Action Center hand out meals between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. every weekday, except for July 4, until Lunch in the Park ends Aug. 9. The center and the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department teamed up to help the health department make the idea of a summer nutrition program in Columbia a reality.
Members of the Columbia Kiwanis Club have volunteered once a week since the program began 13 years ago. Glenn Grimes, a member of the club, helps at Lunch in the Park once a month.
"I think it's good," Grimes said. "Children don't evolve very well when they're hungry."
Meals that are left over are delivered to the Interfaith Day Center, which provides assistance to the homeless, but the program isn't reimbursed for them. The center provides free meals, a permanent address for mail listings and shelter information. When more children than expected show up for Lunch in the Park, Smithton cooks prepare extra meals, which are delivered to the park.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.